Between various legal challenges and Mike Huckabee’s ill-advised statements, contraception is making headlines again. For many Christians, contraception is an issue only if it is abortifacient. But Protestants would do well to think through contraception from a broader moral and theological standpoint. The issue is connected to our view of the human person, the nature of human sexuality and marriage and our view of creation. With a view toward furthering discussion, here are some questions about contraception that Protestants should be asking.
Why do many Protestants think of this as a “Catholic” issue?
Until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, Protestants were with the Roman Catholics on this issue. Protestants agreed that procreation was one of the goals of marriage and that artificial contraception was a sinful violation of this goal. Most Protestants today, however, do not even know that contraception has been considered a moral issue throughout church history. There are good Christian grounds for reassessing our position, even if it means we sound like good Catholics. Re-opening this issue doesn’t mean we’ll become Catholic; it just means we might become old-school Protestants.
Are our bodies meant to say something in sexual intercourse?
Most Protestants would say yes, which is why sex outside of marriage is sin: we are saying something with our bodies that we are not saying with our lives, as whole persons. If sexual intercourse “says something” in and through the language of the body, then artificially sterilizing ourselves does change what is being said.
When Protestants say that use of contraception is a “private, disputable matter,” then they come very close to saying that sexual intercourse only has the meaning that the participants subjectively ascribe to it. If sex is given meaning only by the minds involved, not the bodies, then anything goes, so long as it is consensual. But if consent is our only standard, then we are the producers of meaning (which is why sex is both cheapened and given more weight than it can possibly bear in our culture).
So what is being said if we close down the life-giving possibilities of our own bodies? Protestants must answer this question. With Catholics, we should affirm that the procreative aspect is not the exclusive meaning of intercourse; it certainly has a unitive function. The question is whether we can completely divorce the unitive and procreative meanings without distorting what our bodies should say in intercourse.
What are the criteria for “stewardship?”
Many Protestants appeal to the principles of stewardship to justify contraception. But what needs to be clarified is further criteria and coherence about what qualifies as good stewardship. For example, if we have the power of existence and non-existence over our potential children, then why not also the power to genetically modify them so that they will be healthier, smarter or simply more attractive? Or if contraception is morally wrong and bad stewardship when done from motives of selfishness, luxury or convenience, then who is providing pastoral guidance to help us understand what that looks like in concrete circumstances?
What vision of the body, and therefore of God’s creation, is entailed in contraception?
I was drawn to the Reformed tradition (especially the Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper) because of its robust affirmation of the goodness of creation, including the body. I find myself drawn to the Catholic theology of the body and traditional Protestant teaching on contraception because of the way it affirms the totality and mystery of who we are as humans, body and soul. It also affirms the sacramental nature of creation, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and that we - our bodies, our very selves - participate in God’s life-giving love. It refuses to reduce human bodies and human sexuality to mere biology and proclaims that, as God's image-bearers, our entire being is shot through with the self-giving mystery of love and life. Whether Protestant or Catholic, our call is to revel in that.